“OLD AGE SUCKS,” my neighbour shouted at me the other day as I hobbled towards my flat with the cane in one hand and my house keys in the other. I was unsteady on my feet and she had noticed. I looked back and gave her a withering look.
She laughed. There was no malice in what she had said. “It is easy for you to say that,” I told her, “You are still a kid.”
Actually, she is in her early 70s but looks younger. I am now 87 and, at my age, I look with envy at people of that age. They don’t need walking sticks. They stride while I hobble. Last week, the good doctor at Apollo added vertigo to my ailments. That one is scary. A few days earlier, I had felt giddy, lost my balance and fell in a public place. Kind strangers helped me get on my feet. It is not an experience I would recommend.
I have only two friends who are older than me, MK Rasgotra, a year short of a hundred—more a mentor than a friend—and Mark Tully, a year older than me. All the others have gone to that home in the sky where they fit you with wings. Or the other place that is warmer.
Fortunately, I live close to Lodi Road crematorium and that makes it a short ride when I go to see friends off. It happens often these days. Sometimes when I am there I wonder if there is any point in returning home, I might as well park myself there and wait for my turn.
There are few seats at the crematorium and standing for long can be a problem for me. I arrive half-an-hour later than the announced cremation time. I pay my condolences to relatives who line up afterwards. I say a few words of comfort if I am especially close to the family, but I often pass on with folded hands. No need to keep people in the queue behind me waiting. In any case, if I linger too long, I am likely to become teary, one of the hazards of old age.
My closest relatives, cousins and nephews, live more than a thousand kilometres away in Surat. It is a blessing. I live alone in retirement at Sujan Singh Park where most of the residents are descendants of the person after whom the British-era sprawling complex is named. I am lucky to have nice neighbours, there is a community feeling to the place.
I know I will be taken care of if I am seriously ill or worse. Someone will make the necessary calls for an ambulance and make other arrangements. There was a major fire in our complex some months back and a kind lady offered her guest bedroom to a childless widow who was most distressed by the fire. She stayed there for weeks at no cost until her flat was again ready for occupation.
My friendly neighbour was right, old age sucks. It creeps up on you unexpectedly. For me, the first intimations of mortality came when I had my knees replaced eight years ago. Three years later, I fell in a hotel room and injured my head. Blood had entered my brain. I had surgery that was followed by a month’s rehabilitation to get me mentally and physically back in form.
The nurses gave me mental exercises, they made me walk up and down the hospital corridor till I could walk in a straight line. I was lucky to be in New York where they have great hospitals. In case you are wondering, it was noon when I fell, I was not drunk!
When you are past your prime and you are lucky to have a decent bank balance, your biggest worry is the onslaught of dementia. It refers to symptoms indicating a cognitive decline. People with dementia struggle to remember, think and communicate clearly. They may get lost in their own neighbourhood or forget the names of their spouses or children.
Dementia leaves the inflicted at the mercy of others. It is especially worrisome for those of us who live alone. Physical disabilities are no picnic, but they can be dealt with more efficiently. Even cancer—the emperor of all maladies—is less frightening to me than dementia, also known as Alzheimer’s disease.
Our grandparents didn’t have to worry too much about what they used to call “senility” because their generation died young. Only the lucky ones lived beyond 60. In any case, most people lived as joint families and there was always someone to take care of them.
Today, anyone who lives past 85 has roughly a 50 per cent chance of exiting by way of dementia. I hope I am granted my wish: Death Before Dementia! I accept old age is just another stage of life to deal with, and that it drains the strength from my body, but I do not want to lose my mind.
Old age does have its pleasures. I have always enjoyed writing and retirement has given me time to write. In fact, I have made a whole new career out of it in the last 20 years. It passes time, better than watching Netflix in daylight.
More importantly, writing requires thought, it exercises the mind. Maybe, it will push back dementia. I have been writing for magazines and papers and I got great satisfaction from having six books published late in life. Two of them were on bestseller lists.
Today, anyone who lives past 85 has roughly a 50 per cent chance of exiting by way of dementia. I hope I am granted my wish: death before dementia! I accept old age is just another stage of life to deal with, and that it drains the strength from my body, but I do not want to lose my mind
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In his memoir published recently, Ruskin Bond recommends taking up writing as therapy in old age. Better than playing golf. Everyone can write, it is not necessary to get published though that can be nice. Agatha Christie kept us entertained with detective stories well into her 80s, as did PG Wodehouse with the shenanigans of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.
But if you are old and new at the game, it is not easy to get published. These days, publishing houses are looking for younger, more hip writers, even if they are grammatically challenged. A few weeks back, the manuscript of a book I had written got rejected by a publisher I had been associated with for over a decade.
She said she liked the manuscript, but the publishing house’s list was full for the year. She is a friend and so I have no way of knowing if she was being truthful or was rejecting it as kindly as possible. People are kind to you when you are old. It was my first rejection and it hurt.
I shouldn’t complain, I should be thankful that I have had the privilege to live to old age. Many are not that lucky. I had hepatitis as a teenager which could have proved fatal. At the age of 30, I could have drowned when I went swimming at an unmarked dangerous beach where undercurrents tried to pull me out to sea.
Old age crept up on me by surprise. I was doing just fine until I hit 80 when the body started to crumble. Now, I am ready to go.
As I sail towards the sunset, do I have any regrets? Sure. I wish I had won the Nobel Prize and I wish I had made passionate love to Madhubala. Besides that, no regrets.